Asphalt Cowboy may sound like an offbeat ’70s movie, but rest assured, it isn’t. Starring Idris Elba (‘The Wire’) and Caleb McLaughlin (‘Stranger Things’), the story is familiar and totally unique.
Idris Elba and the young star of ‘Stranger Things’ team up in this drama based on the novel ‘Ghetto Cowboy’ Is it worth it?
When Cole (McLaughlin) gets into trouble, his mother sends him to live with his father Harp (Idris Elba) in North Philadelphia. While there, the rebellious teenager finds kinship in a tight-knit community of black cowboys.
The familiarity of the story stems from the plot: “Teen about to be sent to a daunting new place who finds community and acceptance.” That in itself is a story we’ve seen before. What makes ‘Asphalt Cowboy’ worth watching is the completely unique setting, the character dynamics, and the power of its actors.
As a reluctant but eventually dedicated father, Elba delivers a solid, if slightly watered-down performance. The distancing from him, however, suits the character and isn’t much of a distraction.
There is also the added layer of tension within the community itself, as he looks to the future of his stables and culture. As gentrification and poverty intertwine to threaten it, what can hold it together? These questions are not asked subtly, but ‘Asphalt Cowboy’ was never intended to be a subtle movie. McLaughlin’s school brings the necessary nuance to the film.
McLaughlin plays Cole with a deft combination of throbbing frustration, seething anger, and deeply buried sadness. As such, Cole is an empathetic character, one that you can see yourself in, even if you’ve never ridden through North Philadelphia on horseback.
Asphalt Cowboy strikes a balance between eliciting a sense of universal empathy, but also maintaining and respecting specificity in Cole’s and community’s struggles. They may not be cleverly crafted conversations, but they are brutal and honest, and sometimes that’s exactly what we need.
There may be some who find it a bit silly, but the movie knows how to touch your heartstrings without being too manipulative. Instead, it feels poignant as she goes along with Cole, Harp, and the other Fletcher Street bikers.
What makes ‘Asphalt Cowboy’ even more compelling as a movie is that the supporting cast are all true jockeys from the old Fletcher Street Stables of North Philadelphia. It reinforces the need for unpublished stories that deserve to be told, and well, by the people who have lived them.
Asphalt Cowboy could easily have been a documentary about the black riding community in Philadelphia. But by turning it into a movie, you allow the audience to open their hearts in a way that, perhaps, is not always easy with a documentary.
The additional layers of a fictional coming of age and family story are identifiable and thus we are given a gateway into a community we would not otherwise know about. It is told from the inside out, which makes it feel authentic despite its fictional plot.
We would say that it is one of the main objectives of cinema: to show you a world that you would not have otherwise known, be it real or fictional, and to create a sense of empathy with others. ‘Asphalt Cowboy’ does this well, although sometimes with a heavy hand, but never with a little sincerity.
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